Outgoing 'Caretaker of the Derby' Reflects on Tradition, Changes

Outgoing 'Caretaker of the Derby' Reflects on Tradition, Changes
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Churchill Downs president and CEO Tom Meeker receives award for years of service to Churchill as Nasdaq rep Bruce Aust, left front, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, left back, and Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher look on.
For Churchill Downs Inc. president and chief executive officer Tom Meeker, being what he calls a "caretaker of the Derby" is one of his jobs. But that doesn't mean there can't be change for the world's most recognized horse race, or other aspects of the industry for that matter, he said.

This year's Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) could be the last with Meeker at the helm of CDI. A search is under way for a replacement for Meeker, whose employment contract expires in March 2007.

In a recent interview with members of the media, Meeker reflected on the Derby and the industry at large. He likened the Derby to a painting.

"You can't change a painting but you can change a frame," said Meeker, who joined Churchill Downs in 1984 after serving as general counsel. "Our job has been and will continue to be as caretakers of the Derby that we frame it correctly. We spend a lot of time trying to protect the Derby. Sometimes we get very close to the canvas, and when we do, we stop and say, 'Wait, do we have the right to change the colors?' Our job is not to screw around with the painting."

In commenting on the presenting sponsorship by Yum! Brands, Meeker said the day would come when Churchill Downs finds the right title sponsor for the Derby. He also said the prestige of the Derby isn't a function of the purse, which now stands at $2 million.

"With (money from alternative gaming), we might raise it, but I think we're better off using money for overnight purses and stakes purses to ensure the long-term health of the industry," he said.

In that regard, Meeker said he finds it "troublesome" racetrack gaming legislation has failed to pass in Kentucky for the past 12 years. "This is the Mecca of horse racing, and (the issue) can't seem to get any traction," Meeker said. "It's probably my greatest disappointment."

Overall, Meeker said horse racing is a "static industry with little growth," with factions "constantly fighting for the same old pie." He said the pari-mutuel industry lacks leadership and needs someone who can bring all the constituencies together for the common good.

Meeker said a healthy National Thoroughbred Racing Association, launched in 1998, is necessary. Officials with the NTRA, which operates jointly with Breeders' Cup, have spent much of their time trying to hold the organization together.

"Racing needs an NTRA, but it has to be more focused," said Meeker, who is one of the organization's founding board members. "You can't have 852 objectives you're trying to accomplish. Success is a great motivator, but how can you have it when you're fighting all these things (in the industry)? In the end, I think everyone is committed to the NTRA. Its longevity is very important to the industry."

Meeker said he has signed a non-compete agreement that will last "a few years," and that he would "be around" to help the industry if asked.

"I dedicated 25 years of my life to the industry, and notwithstanding what you guys believe, I do know a little bit about it," Meeker said.

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